The People in the Trees - Hanya Yanagihara

Genre: Fiction
Synopsis: In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. *

* I'm cutting the synopsis off there because it basically tells you the entire book.It opens with a description of the charges of sexual abuse against minors raised against the main character, and the whole book is based on
Daniel Gadjusek - a medical researcher accused of same.


Review: As soon as I finished Yanagihara's second novel, A Little Life, I looked this one up and - adoring the concept - decided to dive right in. And for most of it - for so much of it - I was willing to overlook the flaws that are, admittedly, much larger than those in her sophomore novel. But then the final 80-90 pages happened, and it did not do the book any favours. I've struggled for a couple of days with the rating for this - it was 5 stars right up until those last pages, and I felt it was only fair to drop it down to 4 stars, but then I thought - that ending, in conjunction with all the other flaws - can I really justify any more than 3?

This book is every inch as detailed and intensely depicted as A Little Life, and it is also as unapologetic in its depictions of morally questionable acts and attitudes. The main character, the man whose autobiography we are reading, is an amoral creep (although I will say, I actually agree with his points on moral relativism. If you can't deal with the fact that ancient civilizations sacrificing virgins actually wasn't immoral at all, at the time, then you maybe shouldn't read this book). And, granted, 'I see what you did there', Yanagihara, turning any acceptance moral relativists may have of that philosophy back on their judgemental, culturally affected selves by the end of the book, but it just didn't work.

There are two elements to this book. One, some anthropologists and a soulless scientist go to track down a mythical tribe of immortal people in a Micronesian jungle. The other, is the story of the charges raised against the main character. The portions set in the jungle are fantastic. Yanagihara creates a credible tribe of people and sprinkles a little magic onto the discovery. I loved exploring these people, their home, their language, their customs and rituals, even the incredibly disturbing ones (maybe didn't 'love' those, but it added to the experience). I loved the idea of the opa'ivu'eke turtles. One of the only, but quite large, flaws of these element, is that the anthropologists and scientist took pages and pages and pages to figure out what is A) outlined in a myth at the beginning and B) clearly told in the synopsis. In fact, the (Goodreads) synopsis is basically two thirds of the book, so don't read it.

The second element of the book (the last 80 pages) I honestly didn't care about. I felt it lacked impact, lacked anything but vague moral-relativistic relevance to what preceeded it and honestly it felt like reading an entire other book. I put up with a terrible human being for a narrator because I was interested in what he was talking about. When that talk turned to his own life and doings, it became uninteresting. Apparently there was a 'did he or didn't he do it?' element regarding the charges. I assumed he did, since he went to jail for them (stated at the beginning of the novel), and that whole aspect was lost on me. I'd have been far more interested in learning about the anthropologist dude who disappeared. (It wasn't relevant to the plot, or any kind of foreshadowing. He just disappeared.)

So yeah, as you can tell, I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I just feel like Yanagihara ultimately missed the mark when it counted, which is a shame as a few of her starting shots got so close. That said, it's one I'm likely to read again and just ditch 80 pages before the end.

Rating: 3/5 

No comments: